He’s a Writer for the Ages—For the Ages of Four to Eight

Dorothy Parker? George Jean Nathan? Anonymous?

gjnathan01Dear Quote Investigator: The trenchant prose of Dorothy Parker has always impressed me. Reportedly she once lacerated a writer who was receiving a superfluity of undeserved accolades with the following:

He is a writer for the ages — the ages of four to eight.

Is this Parker’s joke? When was this written?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of a remark matching this template appeared in the ‘Patter’ section of “The Reader’s Digest” in 1938. The age limits were different, and the barb was aimed at a playwright, but the core joke was the same. In addition, the words were not attributed to Dorothy Parker; instead, another wit named George Jean Nathan was credited. Here are two examples from the ‘Patter’ section: 1

When the Critics Crack the Quip

Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank. —John Mason Brown in N.Y. Post

Mr. ———— writes his plays for the ages — the ages between five and twelve —George Jean Nathan

A decade later, in 1948 the anecdote and quotation collector Bennett Cerf published the volume “Shake Well Before Using”, and he included an instance of the saying ascribed to Parker: 2

Miss Parker was asked another time to express an opinion of an overpraised novelist. She remarked, “He’s a writer for the ages—for the ages of four to eight.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” was released by Evan Esar and he ascribed an instance of the quip to Nathan: 3

NATHAN, George Jean, born 1882, American editor, author, and dramatic critic.
He writes his plays for the ages—the ages between five and twelve.

In 1951 “The Saturday Review of Literature” published a quiz titled “Your Literary I.Q.” with twelve questions provided by someone named Wendell Smith. The eighth question requested the identity of the creator of the following quip, and the answer supplied was George Jean Nathan: 4

He writes his plays for the ages—the ages between five and twelve

In 1957 Bennett Cerf revisited the quotation in his syndicated newspaper column, and he presented a variant with fresh upper age limit. Cerf continued to credit Dorothy Parker with the joke: 5

Shifting to book reviewing, she pulverized the author of a succession of dubious best-sellers with “He’s a writer for the ages — the ages of four to six.”

In 1968 a book about the Algonquin Round Table titled “The Algonquin Wits” printed the saying in a section dedicated to Dorothy Parker: 6

Expressing her opinion of a writer whom she considered overpraised, Mrs. Parker said, “He’s a writer for the ages—for the ages of four to eight.”

The sayings attributed to Nathan and Parker have continued to circulate for decades. Here is an instance in a Seattle, Washington newspaper in 1983 crediting Nathan: 7

Why is it that so many great men, having reached a pinnacle of success, now limit their reading to detective stories? And why are writers so devastating on the subject of other writers? A few examples:

“He writes plays for the ages—the ages between 5 and 12.” George Jean Nathan

Here is an instance in Time magazine in 1987 crediting Parker: 8

A corrosive reviewer, Parker once slated a hapless author as a “writer for the ages. For the ages of four to eight.”

In conclusion, currently the earliest evidence in 1938 suggests that the quip was crafted by George Jean Nathan. The first linkage to Dorothy Parker was printed ten years later by Bennett Cerf in 1948. Oddly, Cerf presented a modified quotation in 1957. QI would provisionally credit Nathan.

Notes:

  1. 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 32, Patter, Quote Page 19, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1950, Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 219, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Reprint of 1948 Simon and Schuster edition; Verified on paper in 1950 Garden City Books edition)
  3. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: George Jean Nathan, Quote Page 153, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  4. 1951 March 17, The Saturday Review of Literature, Your Literary I.Q. by Howard Collins, (Questions supplied by Wendell Smith of Morristown, New Jersey), Quote Page 12, (Answers on Page 14), Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  5. 1957 November 10, Los Angeles Times, Section: THIS WEEK Magazine, Bennett Cerf’s Cerfboard: Critics At Play by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page K4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1968, The Algonquin Wits edited by Robert E. Drennan, Section: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 125, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1983 June 26, Seattle Daily Times, The write stuff: It means sweating blood under the tyranny of the typewriter by Stanley Kramer, Quote Page A32, Column 2, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1987 June 15, Time, Books: Brittle Nell by William A. Henry III, (Book review of The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker by Leslie Frewin), (Accessed time.com on September 12 2013; Online Time Magazine Archive)